Doc Watson’s “Cypress Grove Blues”

“Cypress Grove Blues” was part of Skip James’ 1931 recordings for Paramount Records, a session which yielded 18 songs, many of which became blues standards. I learned the song from a 1976 recording by Doc Watson, accompanied by his son Merle and a full band. My arrangement is closer to Doc’s version but I play it in the more traditional blues style. Just as Doc changed the lyrics used by Skip James, I’ve changed Doc’s lyrics, adding the “jumper” (overalls) verse, which I took from Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside (1926-2005).

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born in 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina and became blind before the age of two due to an eye infection. His nickname comes from the literary character of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick in the novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was exposed to the music of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers at an early age and demonstrated a natural musical talent. While still young, he played with Gaither Carlton, a banjo and fiddle player also from Deep Gap. Doc married Gaither’s daughter Rosa Lee and they had two children, son Merle and daughter Nancy. Doc also played with Clarence Ashley, whose 1928 recordings of “The Coo Coo Bird” and “House Carpenter” for Gennett Records were featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that played a major part in the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. Ashley also played with the Carolina Tar Heels, a famous roots music string band. The “Tar Heel” nickname comes from the tar, pitch and turpentine production in North Carolina but was also applied to NC troops during the Civil War, who, it was said, never retreated.

By 1960, Doc was a master of the guitar and banjo, with a powerful clear voice. As a solo artist, he became one of the stars of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Watson recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began performing with his son Merle, who was then 15, the same year.

I saw Doc and Merle in concert in Ottawa sometime in June of 1980. Their musicianship was off the charts but what shone through was their love and respect for each other and for the music of those who came before. As a teenager and a young man, my musical sensibilities were molded by four people – my style of playing came mostly from Mississippi John Hurt; Ry Cooder revealed to me the music of different cultures with his remarkable talent on numerous instruments; Doc Watson taught me to respect the music of the past; everything else came from Dylan.

Merle Watson died in a farm accident in 1985 at the age of 36. He was driving a tractor to a nearby house when it slipped down an embankment and crushed him. Merle was widely recognized as one of the best guitarists of his generation. MerleFest, one of the world’s largest and most-prestigious folk music festivals, is held annually in Wilkesboro, North Carolina and is named in his honor. Doc soldiered on after Merle’s death and performed until 2012, when he died of complications following surgery at the age of 89. Doc’s wife died the same year and is buried with Doc and Merle in the Merle and Doc Watson Memorial Cemetery in Deep Gap.

Doc Watson recorded over 50 albums, won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and received the National Medal of Arts. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 2000.

For more information on the Reverend Robert Wilkins and his music, click here; for Skip James and his music, click here; for Mississippi John Hurt and his music, click here, here, and here.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

Cypress Grove Blues

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